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The Human Toll

Not numbers neither bodies torn
Nor relief of those still whole
Not battles lost and neither won
None
The human toll

Translated excerpt from poem by Afghan poet Soroush

Last week, when Taliban fighters stormed the Spozhmai restaurant at Lake Qargha, just outside of Kabul, human life was lost. Reporters came to the scene. Heroes bade their time until they could make an appropriate rescue. The nation watched. For a day or two, it was the talk of Kabul, in our offices, at schools, at homes and get-togethers. We followed live tweets discussing bullets overhead, bloodshed, smoke, the presence -- or lack thereof -- of iniquities cited by the Taliban as their reason of attack.

I barely watched, stoic as I often am knowing too much observation -- into situations here, into current Syria -- has the capacity to unspool me -- knowing, as many who live in places like Afghanistan do, that life is more important than death, and absorbing too much death gives killers even that too small piece of our heart they do not deserve. Knowing, if we have work to do, whether we're in the throes or trying to figure it out, tears can get in the way.

Later that day, after the remnant hostage situation was over, close to 20 proclaimed dead, and reporters had come home, I sat next to one of the Afghan reporters who had been present. He was very quiet. No elaborate storytelling, no talk of life and death, and unspooling moments. He talked to me about how, stepping through the dead, he focused on one young man's face -- a handsome, youthful man. How, for some reason, he couldn't get this face out of his head. Why? I asked. He couldn't tell me. He couldn't tell me what it was about this one.

He told me about other journalists there: reporters, photographers, crew. He said there were many Afghan members of the press -- as opposed to the foreign members-- openly crying while going through the functions of their work -- an account later verified by those who watched journalists report through streaming tears on television.

I hadn't seen those reports. Like I said, I hadn't been watching. But I wish I had been -- not to see a sad story unfolding, ending in pain either way. More to see the immediate effect of this story on the people covering it, and understand that they were a part of it, rather than simply observing.

Who can be stoic, if not a journalist?

You would think in Afghanistan people would be used to it. Another attack. Another body. No, this is not something anybody gets used to. Even if crying wasn't a cultural norm (which it is here, more than the West anyway), and the tears are kept off one's face, good chance they are pooling elsewhere. I imagine it is worse watching your own countrymen killed by your own countrymen. Year after year after year.

Every death comes with a human toll far past the number dead. The effect on every observer -- more for those close up, like journalists and policeman -- but also those watching on a screen safely removed from the scene -- is part of a pricey toll humans pay for violence.

My conversation that night, and accounts of the emotional news broadcasts, had an effect on me. It was jarring to see the 'aftermath' included shaking journalists. What must immediate family members feel? The human toll compounds. And suddenly here was I, purposefully removed, but still, not allowed not to feel. Add me to the toll.

We pay the toll, and we go on. Foreign and local journalists alike, businesspeople, hairdressers, educators, officials -- people do go on. They keep on with their work, jaws maybe even more set. They go back to the hotel that was bombed, because moments of relaxation and remembrance are both precious. Mostly, they go on because more people than anyone outside of Afghanistan would expect are engaged in the fight against the Taliban. To Afghanistan, continued life is sometimes its own protest. The spirit here is similar to the spirit of strikes elsewhere; strikes are a mass refusal to engage in/condone unfair practices, like labor practices or segregation laws. Mass strikes become proactive resistance, an actual and potent weapon of war. This type of resistance often has the potency, longevity, creativity, and moral power to accomplish what war cannot do, as it was when you compare the abolitionist part of Abraham Lincoln's war to the Civil Rights Movement. Life in Afghanistan sometimes feels like a strike.

It's the right side of the fight to be on, and it's the right way to fight. Every day, I want to encourage people to keep on, but there's no need for that -- that's what people do here. That's what they've been doing for a long time.

I saw the journalists after Qargha Lake, on the couch beside me, and on the TV. I saw a hint of the price they pay for resistance, the toll it takes. And I'm reminded to respect this process -- the soldiers, the writers, the people -- who gain something for society every day, but are giving something up for it. When you see a youthful dead face you will never forget; you pay a toll. When you walk across still warm blood, again, still warm, you pay a toll. We all do.